Readers keep asking me what I think about Michael Vick, the disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback who this week agreed to plead guilty to a number of charges relating to his aspiration to be the Don King of dogfighting. They ask not because I'm a renowned sports lover, but because I'm such a dog lover.
And I do love dogs. They are, evolutionarily and otherwise, man's partners, our wingmen - winghounds if you prefer. Dogs are the only animal to choose to be our friends and comrades in the great struggle of muddling through our turn on this mortal coil. (Cats, I'm sorry to say, hold one paw in each camp so as to forever keep their options open, and all other domesticated animals had to be forced into the arrangement.)
What we see most clearly in dogs are precisely the things we as human beings wish to see in ourselves: loyalty, joy, love, home, family, commitment, humor and an utter disregard for the pieties and pretenses of fashionable life. ("If you take a dog which is starving and feed him and make him prosperous," Mark Twain observed, "that dog will not bite you. This is the primary difference between a dog and a man.") My dog cares not that he is beautiful, that he is rich, that he is prized. All he cares about is that he is loved and that he has someone to love back. And if that someone happens to have a piece of ham behind his back, well, he's no fool either.
Indeed, as many have noted, dogs look to us as we look to God. Even Ambrose Bierce, a great cynic, defined "reverence" as "the spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man."
This helps us understand why finding joy in cruelty to animals is horrific. Torturing a dog or a cat for sport is not disgusting because animals have rights, it is repugnant because human beings have obligations. If animals look to us as gods, and we in turn torture them for our amusement, have we not willingly made ourselves into devils?
Dogfighting in particular is grotesque because in it we reject all that is lovable about dogs in favor of all that is animalistic. We exploit canine loyalty and trust, stripping away the joy like so much bark in order to make dogs more fearsome than even wild animals. No wolf or coyote could stand up to one of Michael Vick's pit bulls, nor do wolves and coyotes have anything like that kind of bloodlust.
It's revealing, however, that we call dogfighting a "sport." This can partly be explained by the double meaning of the word. One definition is mere "amusement." When we do things "for sport," we're doing them for trivial or base reasons. Yet, we also define "sportsmanship" as among the highest forms of conduct. We talk of the glories of sports, the purity of sports, the nobility of sports. Sport, we are told, is a selfless endeavor of sacrifice and excellence.
Businessmen and hucksters exploit this double meaning. After all, there's a lot of money to be made in athletes being seen as heroes. So, every few years we have one of these canned, fruitless debates about whether athletes should be role models, sparked by the latest incident of some poorly educated multimillionaire egomaniac beating (or killing) his wife, trashing a strip club, buying cocaine or, most recently, electrocuting dogs in his spare time.
When these men make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, we are told that it's because such men are special, super even. They are heroes and community leaders, not to mention role models and brand names. But when these same ubermenschen hit the skids, the lawyers, P.R. flacks and front-office men suddenly decry holding these mere mortals to a double standard. Vick's defenders say he wouldn't be banned-for-life from any other profession, so why, they ask, should he banned from his career as a ball-thrower?
Well, if football were like ditch-digging and if we treated quarterbacks like ditch-diggers, this complaint would ring more true. But we treat quarterbacks like gods and sports like the highest form of human expression.
So when these men behave like devils and revel in the lowest aspects of humanity, it will not do to suddenly declare "it's just a job." (The NFL, though hardly in danger of succumbing to an epidemic of moral integrity, can surely see this distinction, at least as an issue of brand integrity.)
Indeed, if sports is supposed to represent all that is best in men, it should tell us something about more than merely Vick himself that his greatest joy came in bringing out the very worst in dogs - and in us.